Prejudice Against Sci-Fi Pushes Talented Writers Away From The Genre, Says Michael Chabon

By Josh Tyler | 9 years ago

We’ve talked a lot on this site both about the science fiction drought we’re experiencing on television and Hollywood’s hesitance to admit they’re making sci-fi even when they’re in the midst of it. Even the most clearly sci-fi movie will be marketed as something else and the people involved, when asked if it’s science fiction will usually him and haw and say they tried to make something different than that… even if their movie is wall-wall spaceships, blasters, and time travel.

What we haven’t really been able to put our finger on is just why this has happened to what was once the most groundbreaking of genres. In a new interview with Wired, John Carter writer Michael Chabon may have just provided an answer to that question. In short, there’s an institutional prejudice against science fiction.

Apparently Chabon is a lifelong science fiction nerd, it’s always been his greatest love and it’s always something he’s wanted to write, but it wasn’t easy for him to actually do it. Chabon explains his struggle to enter the realms of sci-fi this way…

I had been taught early on in college and graduate school that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I wrote genre fiction, and not only would I not be taken seriously, but people just really didn’t want to read it, like, my workshop mates and my workshop leaders. I had workshop leaders who just out-and-out said, “Please do not turn science fiction in to this workshop.” That was discouraging, obviously, and if I had had more courage and more integrity, I might have stood up to it more than I did, but I wanted to be read, and I wanted to receive whatever benefits there were to be received from the people I was in workshop with, and the teachers I was studying from.

I suspect that Chabon’s experience isn’t unusual and that this kind of prejudice is something that’s going on, basically everywhere. It’s not just limited to the educational world either. When he has written sci-fi Chabon has found similar prejudice against publishing it. For instance, here’s what happened when he wrote a Lovecraftian story and tried to get it published in the New Yorker…

I wrote a story that was called “In the Black Mill,” and when I finished it I thought it came out well. I believe my agent sent it to The New Yorker, who wouldn’t even — I mean, it spent a very brief period of time on the editorial desk there before re-emerging with its dignity somewhat in tatters, and then she sent it to Playboy, to a great fiction editor who used to be at Playboy named Alice Turner, who was a great champion of all kinds of genre writing in the literary context, and she took it and wanted to publish it.

Eventually Chabon says had to resort to using a pseudonym in order to write science fiction, afraid that publishing it under Chabon would tarnish his reputation. It’s something other writers have done as well. Chabon explains…

I created this fictional character in the novel Wonder Boys of August Van Zorn, who we’re told is a writer of Lovecraftian horror fiction who had an early influence on the main character of that book, and at some point I just got the idea to try to write an August Van Zorn story.

You know, the pseudonym has always existed as a way to protect the “serious literary writer” from the taint of genre fiction, and that’s how August Van Zorn used it. In the book his real name is Albert Vetch, and he writes under the name of August Van Zorn because he’s a professor of literature, and he has to use a pseudonym for that kind of sordid fare that he’s cranking out, and that pseudonym was there for me as a kind of fig leaf too, to just imagine writing a straight piece of horror fiction that wasn’t “meta” or playing with the tropes of horror fiction in a literary way. I just wanted to write a straight-out story about awful goings-on in this small western Pennsylvania town that turned out to be rooted in some ancient cult of the Elder Ones, just straight ahead Lovecraftian Mythos kind of stuff, and I guess I felt when I did that that I had to protect myself under that pseudonym of August Van Zorn that I had created — it was a double fiction at that point.

So what happened to science fiction? Why isn’t there more of it on television? Why does Hollywood spend so much time pretending it isn’t making it, even when it is? One word: Prejudice.